Army Reserve Sergeant First Class John Taffee recently made headlines when he graduated from basic training at the age of 55. Taffee, a Coast Guard security contractor who spent 14 years in the Navy Reserve, had to complete basic to join the Army’s reserve component and remain in the same pay grade (E-7).
And it looks like SFC Taffee may have some company, at least on the Air Force side. The service announced last week it is raising the maximum enlistment age from 27 to 39 (for enlisted members). Applicants seeking an officer’s commission still must enter by 35, although individuals with needed skills (such as doctors) can obtain waivers and enter at a later age.
The announcement was rather surprising. The USAF has never had difficulty meeting its enlistment quota; in fact, the joke among recruiters is that the typical Air Force office not only meets the quota for that service, it keeps the Army and Marine Corps busy as well, since candidates who can’t meet the USAF’s enlistment standards are often referred to the other services.
So why the change? First, it’s no secret that America (as a society) is getting older. The vast waves of 18-25 year-olds who filled the nation’s colleges–and military ranks–for decades have gradually dissipated. To some degree, the armed forces are facing the same dilemma as those educational institutions that are now touting programs for “adult learners;” as the nation ages, it makes a certain degree of sense to go after demographic groups that will represent a larger share of our population in the years to come. According to the Census Bureau, the number of Americans between the ages of 30 and 44 will grow by 5.8 million by 2023.
As Morgan Housel noted in a 2013 column for The Motley Fool, none of this is surprising; it’s simple demography:
“After the baby boom ended in the 1960s, the birth rate plunged. The baby boom peaked in 1957, when 4.3 million babies were born. By 1976, that number was down to 3.1 million. The sharp drop-off in births between the 1960s and the 1970s meant that the population of Americans aged 30 to 44 would decline in the early 2000s — which is exactly what happened. But the birth rate tipped back up in the late 1970s and 1980s. By the 1980s, Americans were back to having close to 4 million babies per year. That cohort is now approaching its 30s, so the population of Americans aged 30 to 44 is about to begin rising again.”
But–as we’ve observed in the past–accepting older recruits does have military consequences. Many of us are less fit in our 30s than we were in our 20s, and it’s a given that health problems increase as you age, a trend exacerbated by our sedentary lifestyle and obesity epidemic. But relatively few people below the age of 40 are chronically ill, so the Air Force is confident is can find plenty of healthy, motivated recruits past the age of 30. And since most airmen work in support roles (as opposed to direct combat), the USAF doesn’t need large numbers of young people to fill infantry billets and positions requiring individuals in peak physical condition.
Older recruits also tend to be better educated and they (presumably) already have some experience in the workplace, so they should be easier to train. But there are questions about their willingness to stay for the long haul, as opposed to pulling a hitch and heading back to civilian life. Many of these recruits will probably take a pay cut from their last civilian job and–particularly if they have marketable skills–they will return to the private sector when the economy improves. That doesn’t provide much help with force experience levels and continuity–exceedingly important qualities among mid-level and senior NCOs, which form the backbone of the armed forces.
But then again, the Pentagon has been signalling its preference for a more, shall we say, “transient” force. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been complaining about the high cost of the current military retirement system, which allows individuals to leave active duty in their late 30s or early 40s (after 20 years of service) and collect a pension for life that is equivalent to 50% of their base pay.
Additionally, members of a DoD compensation panel recently recommended moving towards a 401k-style retirement plan, which would allow individuals to earn benefits for shorter tenures, with one catch: the pension checks wouldn’t start rolling in until age 62. Bumping up the enlistment age (along with other so-called benefit reforms) are aimed at reducing the retirement load. An Air Force Master Sergeant (E-7) who retired at 55 would collect at least $300,000 less in retiree pay than his counterpart who left active duty at the age of 43. When you factor in cost-of-living adjustments health care costs for retired service members, the savings are even greater. Don’t think those facts haven’t been lost on the Pentagon bean counters who work the actuarial tables.
There’s another important reason the Air Force is raising its enlistment age. It’s becoming much more difficult to find youngsters in the prime recruiting cohort (18-to-25 year-olds) who meet the minimum standards of military service. Recent estimates suggest that only 28% of young Americans in that age group meet entrance standards for the armed forces; the rest are disqualified due to such factors as the lack of a high school diploma, a history of drug abuse, the long-term use of certain prescription medications (such as ritalin), criminal records, obesity and an inability to achieve minimum scores on the military entrance exam. Expanding the recruiting pool will make it easier–at least in theory–to find prospective recruits who can meet enlistment standards.
It’s worth noting that the other branches of service have not followed the Air Force’s lead–at least not yet. The maximum enlistment age for the Army (excluding prior service recruits) is 35; it’s 34 in the Navy and the Marine Corps won’t accept new recruits over the age of 28.
But the Air Force is willing to take a chance, emphasizing that the expanded age range will allow it to maintain high standards for new enlistees. And there’s a certain truth in that; while the minimum ASVAB score for USAF enlistment is only 40, many jobs require a composite score of 65 or higher. Given the failings of our education system–and the social pathologies evident among young adults–the Air Force is sending a signal that it won’t be able to find enough high-quality recruits among that group to fill its ranks. And given the (relatively) small number of airmen who will enter the service over the next decade, that is a rather damning indictment, indeed.